Call me Nathanielsz

Posted: February 25, 2011 in Life in the Philippines
Tags: , , , , , ,

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A few days ago, while at a friend’s presentation on the historic Edsa 1 People Power Revolution, I saw an interview clip of someone surnamed Nathanielsz, and wondered why my parents didn’t go for that instead. It was the latest of many ways that the collision of two languages and cultures has entertained us since we arrived in Manila last July.  Whether it’s extra letters (Dhon the plumber? Margareth the councilwoman?), hilarious Taglish grammar, or unintentional sexual innuendoes, we wanted to share in this photo gallery some of our favorite examples of creative uses of English.

But we also wanted to comment on the broadening experience it’s been tackling a foreign language ourselves. Based on multiple conversations with polyglots, we think learning Filipino* (which shares our alphabet and only has a few sounds English doesn’t) is harder for English speakers than Romance or Germanic languages, but easier than Mandarin or Arabic.

As this fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal points out, language influences how we see the world–and thus learning a new language is to learn a new worldview. Over the past six months learning Filipino, we’ve seen multiple examples of this:

“Ngayon” means both “now” and “today.” If you inferred from this that Filipino culture is not very time-oriented, you’d be correct. (Conversely, fellow Americans, have you realized how many sayings and expressions we have that implicitly value time and direct communication? Straight shooter, get to the point, spit it out, stop beating around the bush, means what she says and says what she means, and more.)

In the Philippines, everyone’s part of the family: they use the terms twofold affectionate/respectful terms “kuya” (older brother), and “ate” (older sister) not only with family members, but with strangers, because everything in the Philippines is about relationships. Unlike western countries, you rarely have an interaction here that is completely anonymous or transactional.

Age- and status-consciousness is built right into Filipino speech: anyone who’s being polite will add the marker “po” to a sentence any time they’re addressing someone older or in a position of authority, or in business settings. (E.g. I’d say thanks “salamat” to a younger person, but “salamat po” to an older one.) Unlike the U.S., where everyone tries to pretend they’re equal, in the Philippines there’s always hierarchy and respect–which in relation to America’s obsession with youth, seems healthy. (“Po” also produces some hilarity in hybrid Taglish common in the Manila area; we’ve heard everything from “hello po” to “scuse me po” to “God bless you po.”)

Finally, passive verbs are more commonly spoken than active ones: in the U.S. we’d say “What are you doing?” but in the Philippines they’d say “What is being done by you?” Unlike me-first Americans, they place the emphasis on the activity, because actions and groups are more important. Sadly, passive verbs are twice as complicated and three times as long as active ones (e.g. “salita” is speak, but “nakakapagsalita” is “able to be spoken”), so at this point, according to our tutor, we sound like six-year-olds with our active verbs. But we’re trying . . . or as Filipinos would say, it’s being tried by us: sinusubukan namin.

— Nate

* Tagalog is the original name of the language, based in Luzon, that along with English is one of the national languages here. It is officially referred to as Filipino in an attempt to be more inclusive of the other regions; unlike many linguistically and geographically monolithic countries, the Philippines (with around 90 million people) has twelve languages with over a million speakers, so the choice of Tagalog as the national language is a sore subject with Cebuano speakers, which are almost equal in number to native Tagalog speakers.

  1. Leah says:

    had a GREAT laugh this morning because of this post. i wish i had taken more sign pictures during my time there!

  2. Liza says:

    Love it! Learning a language is truly one of the best ways to learn about the culture. Interesting WSJ article.
    Korean and to a lesser degree Chinese has a lot of the features you mention in Tagalog–respectful add-ons when speaking to older people, family terms like “older brother” and “older sister” used with non-family, etc. I am not sure why Chinese has these features less than Korean, but I wonder if maybe it’s because it’s a much bigger and more diverse society than Korea and thus maybe there’s less “we’re all one family” and more clannishness. Anyway, I could go on and on… this stuff is fascinating!

  3. Christisz says:

    Ah, this takes me back to my days of visiting Singapore. Nice to get a taste of the lighter side of living there. 🙂 And fascinating, too, some of the contrasts in values and perspectives you highlighted! Some interesting insights — although I’m not sure I’d want to have to up my use of passive verbs. Oy.

    • freeisaverb says:

      Yes, the passive verbs are a doozy. Sometimes I really struggle to construct sentences in Tagalog because I can’t even figure out how to construct the same sentence in English . . . the result of many, many English classes that mostly hammered passive verbs out of my writing. The other hilarious thing we’ve started noticing is that our English is getting worse. Thanks for reading and commenting! I hope your own writing is coming along well!

  4. Carl says:

    Cool! I love hearing about the weird bits in different languages- really have to learn a non-IE language one day. How fluent are you feeling after over half a year there?

    • freeisaverb says:

      Thanks for reading Destroyer! And yes, you should. Not sure why I’ve never asked you what cultural values you’ve picked up from your study of Swedish, Old Norse, and whatever else . . . suppose that’s an entire conversation right there.

    • freeisaverb says:

      Thanks for the comment, Carl! Our Tagalog teacher says (in not so many words) that now that we’re somewhat comfortable with active verbs and scratching the surface on passive verbs, we can pat ourselves on the back for being able to speak about as well as a 6-year-old.

  5. hilary says:

    So glad that Laura got some mushyness for V-day. Love you po!

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